“There’s no such thing as chance, everything is connected,” says Sarah, the object of Franz Ritter’s unrequited love in Mathias Enard’s Compass, the now shortlisted (and possibly favourite for the prize) International Man Booker novel. And, indeed, Compass is a finely woven network of connections, particularly those between East and West. Set in Vienna, a city which was once seen as a gateway between those two compass points, the novel is, like Zone, a stream of consciousness tour de force, occurring during the long, dark night of the day Ritter is diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease:
“…today, when a compassionate doctor may have named my illness, declared my body officially diseased, almost relieved at having given my symptoms a diagnosis – a deadly kiss – a diagnosis we’ll need to confirm while beginning a treatment, he said…”
Ritter’s single night, in which he staves off death through flooding his mind with his life, is, of course, a nod towards the West’s central Eastern text, One Thousand and One Nights; others have also pointed towards Enard’s debt to Proust in its unspooling memories, who, Ritter points out, was influenced himself by the Arabian tales. Connections from East to West form the basis of Enard’s novel: Ritter himself is a musicologist with an interest in Oriental music; Sarah, a scholar of the Orient; his happiest memories are of their time together in Syria. It would not be fanciful to suggest that their relationship provides an echo of Europe and the Middle East. The novel is more essay than story, however, and Enard’s work seems, at times, to encompass any Western artist who has flirted with the East, as well as being an ‘off-campus’ novel of academics in the wild.
The timeliness of Enard’s novel has already been widely discussed: the East is no longer seen as a source of inspiration and collaboration but, once again, a threat. By reminding us of the fascination of Western artists with the Orient, particularly classical composers, Enard reminds us that each culture has often enhanced the other in a riposte to growing intolerance on both sides. This requires considerable erudition which Enard does not seek to hide, but this, too, is a response to a society living reflex to reflex in the moment, and with scant regard for knowledge in any form – a post-history, post-expert society. At times the novel, quietly spoken as it is, feels like an Enlightenment howl of rage and despair.
The danger is that for every reader attracted by the learning on show, others will be intimidated, but, as with Zone, Enard is always readable, creating that ideal balance between refusing to talk down to the reader while never seeming to show off. Ritter’s humanity is always placed before his knowledge, in particular those moments of failure with Sarah which continue to haunt him:
“If I had dared to kiss her under that improvised Palmyran tent instead of turning over scared stiff, everything would have been different.”
Ritter and Sarah’s relationship (such as it is) grounds the novel, but its evident refusal to flourish ensures that the narrative (such as it is) doesn’t suffer from tension which might make Enard’s detours frustrating. This allows him, like a tour guide, to assume we know the history and focus on the interesting anecdotes and local colour.
“The important thing is not to lose sight of the East,” Ritter tells himself, and that is the novel’s message for us. It’s a determination that finally rewards him with “the warm sunlight of hope.” We can only pray we are as lucky. Compass is a novel that is profoundly of its time because it is out of it, and it would be a worthy winner.